Thursday, May 28, 2015

You Were Expecting Someone Else: Marcelo Camargo

This post exists because my Patreon crossed the $310 mark. It's currently at $318.50, exactly $6.50 away from another bonus post like this on "Night of the Doctor," which will otherwise wait until the McGann/Eccleston book to be written. You can pledge to help make that happen here.

To recap, in early July 2014 it emerged that a server at a BBC Worldwide had been improperly secured, and that scripts for the first five episodes of Season Eight had leaked. A few days later it became clear that the leak was worse than it had initially appeared as a workprint of Deep Breath also appeared on torrent sites, followed, over the course of the next month and a half, by workprints of Into the Dalek, Robot of Sherwood, Listen, and Time Heist. The files had been prepared for a Brazil-based subtitling company called Drei Marc, and specifically for a gentleman named Marcelo Camargo who, despite having absolutely nothing to do with the leak itself, became the name most associated with it.

The first thing to say is both obvious and controversial: it was fine. For all the talk of the leak being “embarrassing” for both Doctor Who and the BBC, there were no meaningful negative consequences. All five leaked episodes performed just fine, both critically and in the ratings. Just like the leak of Rose didn’t hurt anything (and indeed probably helped the series, as the diehard fans hashed out all their arguments over it in advance). Indeed, the truth is that it’s tough to think of any instance where a pre-release leak to torrent sites actually caused any damage. It’s to the point where it’s widely believed that the recent leak of the Supergirl pilot was deliberate on CBS’s part. 

No, that’s not the same as saying that leaks can’t hurt shows. Certainly it helps that the five leaked episodes were actually good. It’s hard to hurt good material by letting people see it. Had Capaldi completely bombed in the part such that the buzz around the screener copies was negative it would have been a very different situation. But these were five episodes of television that ranged from the quite good to the excellent, and even with unfinished effects and dodgy musical cues their basic quality was evident.

And yes, I suppose at this point I may as well admit that I watched them at the time, especially as Moffat has admitted that he would have watched them. I don’t mean this revelation to indicate some larger ethical principle, to be clear. I just couldn’t resist. My wife and I were nearly a year into a running joke of saying “guess what” with the answer being a very emphatic and happy “Peter Capaldi,” with every syllable emphasized. I was dying to see the new Doctor. So I caved. Lasted a solid week or two after Deep Breath leaked, and avoided the scripts entirely, as what I was interested in was the performance, not the plot, but I caved eventually.

What was most interesting, as they came out, was the way in which the release felt carefully managed, starting with the scripts and the belief that the episodes themselves hadn’t leaked, then Deep Breath and (fascinatingly) a withheld Into the Dalek - a torrent for the episode went up, but nobody seeded it for a solid month after the torrent came out. Then Robot of Sherwood and Time Heist came pretty soon after Into the Dalek, but, in perhaps the most interesting detail of all of this, Listen got held for last.

Yes, that’s right. The pirates who hacked a BBC Worldwide server and leaked five episodes of Doctor Who stage-managed the release and deliberately saved the best for last, releasing it on the same day that Deep Breath aired, so that the screener leaks were as effective a piece of publicity as possible. Really, were it that all Doctor Who fans were as nice as the pirates. 

But what is more interesting than the question “do leaks like this cause damage” (a question that, more than anything, seems pointless the more it becomes clear that leaks like this are not actually preventable) is, I think, “how do leaks like this affect our understanding of how television works?” Because they do, in many ways, feel like they belong to a contemporary age of television. Obviously this is true on a very basic level - the technological means by which a workprint can be obtained and mass distributed is a relatively recent invention. John Nathan-Turner didn’t have to lose sleep about Attack of the Cybermen leaking. 

But there’s also a level of televisual literacy that’s involved in watching a workprint. I remarked to a friend at the time that watching the workrprints felt not unlike watching a reconstruction of a missing episode. You’re not so much watching the episode as you are watching a rough guide of how it’s going to fit together. It’s not just the enormously distracting presence of a timecode, huge captions declaring it property of the BBC and something prepared for Marcelo Camargo, and occasional captions explaining what you’re supposed to be looking at or hearing either. It’s the lack of color, of visual effects, and of music, all of which are genuinely important parts of the storytelling.

And this is evident in the fact that the workprints were misleading about the respective qualities of the episodes. They all looked pretty good, and in practice were. But from the workprints, at least, Time Heist seemed rather more promising than it ended up being. In black and white the corridors of the vault looked moody and brutalist, as opposed to like Douglas Mackinnon relying way too heavily on lighting gels in an attempt to make the same room look different. There’s also a line that was, as of the workprint, meant to be ADRed in that would have had the Doctor proclaiming his hatred of the architect at about the 9:30 mark, as opposed to first mentioning it when Sabra appears to die, which did a better job of setting up the ending. 

It’s not, to be clear, that the workprint of Time Heist is better. There are sequences that are barely followable with the effects missing, and the lack of music really does make sequences drag in ways they don’t in the finished episode. (Although the placeholder music is in other places oddly delightful - the sequence in which the Doctor and the prisoners fight back against the robots has a very drum-heavy musical cue overlaid that was tremendously compelling just because it gave the scene a texture unlike any other action sequence in Doctor Who.) Rather, it’s that, judging by the workprints, one would have guessed that Time Heist would be a stronger episode than it was. 

And it’s not the only one to change. Into the Dalek looked much weaker in the workprint. Part of that is that it was by far the most effects heavy episode and many of its ultimate pleasures came from the very, very good Dalek action sequences at the end, which have next to no impact in black and white. It was by some margin the one requiring the most reconstruction.

There are also things that come into oddly different focus on the workprints. In black and white, for instance, Ben Wheatley’s direction of Deep Breath jumps out considerably more, especially if you’ve seen A Field in England, as the black and white helps highlight the similarities. And there is, I think, a fair case to be made that both Deep Breath and Time Heist are simply better suited to black and white. 

And it is this, I think, that gets at the strange appeal of these, even separate from the basic thrill of getting to see Doctor Who early. That, after all, is generally what discussions of the leaks focus on, and it’s a significant issue within television as an art form in the mid-2010s. In doing my same-day reviews of Season Eight, I focused on television as a pop medium, with episodes being roughly akin to singles, with the moment of transmission serving as a distinct intervention in the cultural zeitgeist with measurable, traceable effects. And there are, in Season Eight, at least three moments where the specific circumstances of transmission matter to how the episodes are read: Deep Breath’s engagement with the dwindling summer light, Kill the Moon’s meticulous and magical use of the night, and Death in Heaven’s potent juxtaposition with Remembrance Sunday. The idea of event television matters.

But there’s a growing vision of television as something more akin to an album medium than a single medium, spearheaded by Netflix’s “whole season at once” model. It’s one that I suspect Doctor Who is particularly poorly suited to, as the rapid juxtapositions that animate it are something that came out of a structure and logic of serialization. And so a lot of the supposed danger of leaks came from this. The BBC’s initial reaction to the script leaks, tellingly, was asking people not to spread spoilers.

And as someone who has seen, at this point, a half-dozen Doctor Who episodes early through completely legitimate means (a mix of preview screenings and BBC-issued review copies), there’s something to this. I remember walking out of the Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon screening simultaneously thrilled by the cliffhanger on Day of the Moon and gutted that I was now two weeks further away from new Doctor Who than the rest of the world. When television is operating in a pop mode, the loss of the idea of transmission is significant.

But what was most interesting about the Marcelo Camargo leaks was precisely that they weren’t quite violations of this. Every episode still crackled when it aired. Yes, sure, you knew about the Matt Smith cameo in Deep Breath (but then, so did people who had paid attention to filming reports) and the final twist in Listen, but it didn’t really matter. Seeing the episodes finished, as what they were instead of as half-finished possibilities, was still genuinely thrilling. 


I think, in the end, that’s because the Marcelo Camargo leaks offered something more than just sneak peeks. They let us see, while certainly not the whole of the creative process, at least part of it. Yes, some of that was artificial - it’s not as though the episodes were ever really looked at in black and white, after all. But it was still a demonstration of something that, watching television, one knows but never gets to experience: the fact that the finished product that explodes forth into the world upon transmission is the endpoint of a process. The Marcelo Camargo leaks let us watch Doctor Who be finished. It was, to be sure, a strange pleasure, and one only experienceable in the summer of 2014, when these episodes were, in point of fact, still unfinished. But for my part, at least, and I suspect I am speaking at least in part as someone who has done creative work, the experience of watching someone else’s ideas make that final transformation into art, and especially of watching it happen on something I love and care about was amazing, and a wonderful start to what would prove, for my money, the most satisfying year of watching Doctor Who of my life.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Comics Reviews (May 26th, 2015)

Uncanny Avengers: Ultron Forever #1

Not a week where being at the bottom of the list is a commentary on much beyond how good the list is. Ewing is going for raw silliness here, and the pleasure of this book is unabashedly in using the deep history of Marvel Comics to put together a plot that is at once a riff on Age of Ultron and firmly a celebration of the greater weirdness of Marvel comics. It's fluffy, and I suspect $15 was a bit high for the entirety of this story, but it's terribly fun.

The Infinity Gauntlet #1

Interesting, and a comic that introduces some characters you really hope will stick around past the crossover. I liked Duggan's issue of The Black Vortex more than most of that arc, and was enthused to check him out on a riff on the first big Marvel story I ever read, but this doesn't quite scratch that itch, and what's introduced instead - a very nice riff on the idea of child heroes and responsibility - isn't quite defined enough to grab me. Still, I'm apparently pulling this, and I may well forget to drop it. Worth checking out, but a book that has the misfortune of coming while I'm trying to pare my pulls.

Where Monsters Dwell #1

Garth Ennis being silly. He's very good at this sort of comedy, but it's a slender thing, and I kind of suspect I should drop it and add War Stories from Avatar.

Chew #49

A good issue, which is a good sign as we move into the last year of this book. The boil has long since gone off this for me, but I remain vaguely optimistic that it will stick the landing and not make me feel bad for pulling it for the last two years of its run. Quite liked Olive and Tony's reunion. Olive is by some margin the best thing going in this book.

Old Man Logan #1

A Frank Miller riff, but in a nice, technical sense of playing with his sense of craft rather than his more overbearing aspects. I was kind of expecting the worst out of this book, as I find Sorrentino's art, though moody, tough to follow, but it kept things going well, with a nice Western noir feel and a surprising level of Secret Wars meatiness. The final image is terribly promising.

Uber #25

A side trip that depends on a better memory of the overall state of play than I have, and thus something of a slender thing for me, but also the sort of worldbuilding whose existence is part of the point of Uber, a comic that's obviously going to reward a reread when it's done. Or possibly in two months when it takes a mid-run break prior to a big 2016 relaunch.

Providence #1

This is marketed as the Watchmen of H.P. Lovecraft, but to any Moore connoisseur it's clearly intended to be the From Hell of Lovecraft, and like From Hell, it opens with a slow burn, with pieces put on the board according to a logic that is as of yet far from clear. Lots to savor and pick apart here - I'd be lying if I said I entirely understood the plot or had a firm idea who all the characters were yet, and there's lots of Lovecraft to brush up on. But the basic pleasure of finally starting down this path after literally years of anticipation is still enormous.

Sandman: Overture #5

Pleasantly, this comic finally comes together, with an issue that feels disciplined and clever instead of sloppy and overambitious. Williams is his usual genius, Gaiman gives him good material to work with, and the whole thing, for kind of the first time in the miniseries, feels like a good issue of Sandman instead of like an ill-advised reunion tour of a band that will never be as good outside its decade as in.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

A Brief Treatise on the Rules of Thrones 2.01: The North Remembers


State of Play

The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:

Lions of King’s Landing: Tyrion Lannister, Cersei Lannister
The Lion, Jaime Lannister 
The Direwolves, Catelyn Stark, Robb Stark
Dragons of the Dothraki Sea: Daenerys Targaryen,
Mockingbirds of King’s Landing: Petyr Baelish
Bears of the Dothraki Sea: Jorah Mormont
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow
Ships of Dragonstone: Davos Seaworth
Direwolves of Winterfell: Brandon Stark
Direwolves of King’s Landing: Sansa Stark
The Direwolf, Arya Stark
The Kraken, Theon Greyjoy
Archers of the Wall: Samwell Tarly
Stags of King’s Landing: Joffrey Baratheon
Dogs of King’s Landing: Sandor Clegane
Burning Hearts of Dragonstone: Stannis Baratheon, Mellisandre
Bears of the Wall: Jeor Mormont
Chains of King’s Landing: Bronn
Spiders of King’s Landing: Varys
Flowers of King’s Landing: Shae

The episode is in ten parts. The first runs eight minutes and is set in King’s Landing. The opening image is of the Hound fighting another armored man. 

The second runs four minutes and is set in Winterfell. The transition is by dialogue, from Tyrion and Cersei talking about the Starks to Bran. 

The third runs four minutes and is set in the Red Waste, east of the Dothraki Sea. The transition is by dialogue, from Bran and Osha talking about dragons to Daenerys and her dragons, and by red comet. 

The fourth runs six minutes and is set at Craster’s Keep, north of the Wall. The transition is by family, from Daenerys Targaryen to Jon Snow, and by red comet.

The fifth runs seven minutes and is set on Dragonstone. The transition is by red comet. At the episode’s halfway point, Stannis is being crowned the Prince that Was Promised as he is reborn amidst salt and smoke in the creation of Lightbringer.

The sixth runs three minutes and is set in the Stark camp in the Riverlands. The transition is by image, from the flickering fire behind Melisandre to the fires in the Stark camp, and by dialogue, with both Robb Stark and Jaime Lannister being discussed at Stannis Baratheon’s small council meeting.

The seventh runs five minutes and is in sections; it is set in King’s Landing. The first section is two minutes long; the transition is by family, from Jaime Lannister to Tyrion. The second section is three minutes long; the transition is by family, from Tyrion Lannister to Cersei. 

The eighth part runs five minutes and is set in the Stark camp in the Riverlands; the transition is by family, from Cersei to Alton Lannister.

The ninth runs five minutes and is in sections; it is set in King’s Landing. The first section is two minutes long; the transition is by hard cut, from Catelyn Stark to Cersei walking into the throne room. The second section is two minutes long. The transition is by hard cut, from Cersei to prostitutes having sex, and by consequence, from Joffrey ordering the death of Robert Baratheon’s bastards to one being killed in the brothel. The final section is one minute long; the transition is by event, from the bastard baby being murdered to a montage of bastards being killed. 

The final part runs seconds and is set on the Kingsroad north of King’s Landing; the transition is by dialogue, from the smith talking about Gendry and his helm to Gendry. The final image is of Arya and Gendry on the caravan, riding north and pondering a riddle whose answer is chess. 

Analysis

It’s a strange first move; a gambit to be sure. 

The first sequence of play moved with deliberateness, driven forward by two breathtakingly beautiful dramatic engines: the transition from ice in the cold open to fire in the closing shot and the death of Eddard Stark. It was an ideal demonstration of how the game is played. This is a much more confusing opening, raising more questions than answers, at least as compared to the previous. It is called “The North Remembers,” but the words appear nowhere within it, and there are but four minutes in Winterfell, and eight in Robb Stark’s camp. More to the point, if the episode can be said to be about any one thing, it is the comet that serves as the episode’s defining transition, stitching together the world via a singular image that unites all the disparate places like Jon Snow’s parentage. 

The purpose of the comet, at least, is clear: it is a demonstration of the return of magic to the world. The proximate cause, as explained by Osha (another Ice-Fire suture there), is the birth of Daenerys’s dragons, but within the context of the episode, this serves as a marker for a broader resurgence of magic within the world. Most obviously, of course, there is Mellisandre, who serves as the sharp edge of the larger introduction of Stannis to the plot.

This ends up landing somewhat differently than it does in A Clash of Kings, where Stannis is introduced in the prologue via a one-off chapter narrated by Maester Cressen. Here, however, Stannis makes his first appearance at the episode’s halfway point. This is a significant change. In the book, Stannis’s introduction as a new center of power is presented as the shift that defines A Clash of Kings in contrast with A Game of Thrones. Here, however, it is ultimately a consequence of Daenerys’s rise, with Melisandre’s magic serving as an echo of Daenerys’s awakened dragons.

Instead the series opens with Tyrion’s entrance to King’s Landing; a location it is worth remembering he has never actually been seen in before, despite it being at the time of writing the location Tyrion is most associated with. Certainly this accurately sets the direction of the season - Tyrion will be the only character to appear in every episode, and takes Eddard Stark’s old position, both on the council and in the credits, a literal Lannister usurpation of the Starks.

But if Tyrion is the starting point of the season, he is not shown to have the sort of narrative control of it that the Starks did in “Winter is Coming.” For now he holds a position, as opposed to wielding power. Instead the episode ends with Arya, whose status as the end of the episode is her only appearance within it. In one sense this is practical - her first chapter in A Clash of Kings was subsumed into the first season, and it would be helpful if her character had a break this episode, but there is obvious desire to include her to remind people where she is in the plot.

She does, however, provide the closest thing the episode has to a way of understanding the choice of titles, although she requires that the phrase be altered slightly. While the episode at no point really contains any instances of the North remembering, a fair reading can be constructed in which Arya serves as the North’s memory, or, perhaps more accurately, as a memory that has been forgotten and sits, waiting to be remembered. 

Indeed, inasmuch as there is a clear logic to the move as opposed to a simple expression of chaos this would seem to be it. Where the first season depicted a primarily political realm that steadily had its long buried magical roots impose themselves, this season depicts a world of rising magic under which lurks the seemingly buried North. This is fitting for Arya, who serves in some key ways as the purest remnant of her father. Where Robb embodies the North as a political state that Eddard Stark once headed and Bran embodies a broader and subtler spiritual condition, Arya embodies the basic idea of fairness and justice that her father both was defined by and died for. She does not represent a reaction to her father’s execution, but rather a refusal to accept it and a demand for reparation. Except that unlike Bran, Robb, and even Sansa and Jon, Arya does not hold any position of authorized power. She is not the Stark in Winterfell or the King in the North, nor the queen-to-be or a man of the Night’s Watch. She is instead curiously unmoored from the formal structures of power.

But all of this is ultimately looking at this move in terms of the game that plays out. In that regard it is like any other first move - mostly groundlaying. In that regard it’s the same basic move as “Winter is Coming,” only with a focus on the broader board. That episode introduced a stable situation (the Starks’ life in Winterfell) and then made its collapse inevitable. But that was predicated both on the narrative needs of introducing the game and on the narrative need to get the audience to miss how badly Ned is playing until more or less the moment of his death, both of which require the false equation of Winterfell and Westeros.

Here the audience is well aware of the existence of the larger board and of the peculiar relationship between its edges, and so instead of a singular stable situation we are presented with a host of them, each with built-in instabilities. This is the precise dynamic of the first scene: the stable situation of Joffrey’s tyrannical rule in King’s Landing is rendered unstable by the arrival of Tyrion. And every other location in the episode gets a similar treatment: the establishment of an unsustainable status quo, the collapse of which will presumably form subsequent plot. (In this regard, again, the brief coda of Arya is significant in that it renders Arya not as part of any status quo, but rather as an instability haunting the entirety of the board.) 

In which case what is truly remarkable is just how different all of these status quos are from those of “Fire and Blood.” Only Robb is left more or less in the same position as at the end of the previous season, and this can be chalked up to the show’s continuing process of understanding the ways in which his story has to change in adaptation away from the “viewpoint character” model. This is most obvious with the Targaryens. Daenerys ended “Fire and Blood” in a position of monumental strength, and opens “The North Remembers” in a position of crushing weakness, slowly dying in the desert. Likewise, Jon ended “Fire and Blood” riding out as part of the Great Ranging, and opens in Craster’s Keep, the shithole to end all shitholes. In neither case has a great deal of time passed for the characters, but the season gap has been used to take both characters from positions of potential to specific status quos. 


But all of this is, in the end, the point of a gambit, a move that is defined less by the risk it engenders and more by the fact that it increases the amount of uncertainty in the game. We may have come to understand the rules of Thrones by this point. But it is almost immediately apparent that we still have no idea how the game is actually played.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Gift

State of Play

The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:

Lions of Meereen: Tyrion Lannister
Lions of Dorne: Jaime Lannister
Lions of King's Landing: Cersei Lannister
Dragons of Meereen: Daenerys Targaryen
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow
Mockingbirds of King's Landing: Petyr Baelish
Roses of King's Landing: Margaery Tyrell
The Burning Hearts, Stannis Baratheon and Mellisandre
The Ship, Davos Seaworth
Archers of the Wall: Samwell Tarly
Paws of the Wall: Tormund Giantsbane
Flowers of the Wall: Gilly
Stags of King's Landing: Tommen Baratheon
Kraken of Winterfell: Reek
Direwolves of Winterfell: Sansa Stark
Flayed Men of Winterfell: Ramsey Bolton
Shields of Winterfell: Brienne of Tarth
Chains of Dorne: Bronn
Swords of Meereen: Dario Noharis
With the Bear of Meereen, Jorah Mormont.

Braavos is abandoned.

The episode is in twelve parts. The first is three minutes long and is set at the Wall. The opening image is of a horse.

The second is three minutes long and is set in Winterfell. The transition is by hard cut, from a reaction shot of Gilly to an establishing shot of the hall outside Sansa's room.

The third is three minutes long and is set at the Wall. The transition is by image, from Brienne watching for a candle in the window to candles lit around Maester Aemon's deathbed. It features the death of Aemon Targaryen, who dies of old age.

The fourth is four minutes long and is set in Winterfell. The transition is by image, from snow falling over Maester Aemon's funeral pyre to snow falling on the battlements at Winterfell.

The fifth is four minutes long and is set on the road between Winterfell and the Wall. The transition is by image, of snow falling, and by dialogue, from Ramsey talking about Stannis in the winter to Stannis's camp in the winter.

The sixth is six minutes long and is set at the Wall. The transition is by hard cut, from Stannis to Gilly tending a fire.

The seventh is five minutes long and is in two sections; it is set in Meereen. The first section is three minutes long; the transition is by hard cut, from Sam and Gilly having sex to slaves being marched. The other is two minutes long; the transition is by hard cut, from Tyrion to Daenerys and Dario in bed.

The eighth part is seven minutes long and is in two sections; it is set in King's Landing. The first section is four minutes long; the transition is by hard cut, from Daenerys to an establishing shot of the Great Sept of Baelor. The second is three minutes long; the transition is by dialogue, from Oleanna talking about Margaery to Tommen and Cersei doing the same.

The ninth part is five minutes long and is in two sectionsl it is set in Dorne. The first section is one minute long; the transition is by family, from Cersei and Tommen to Jaime and Myrcella. The second section is four minutes long; the transition is by image, from Jaime standing in front of a window to a window in the prison.

The tenth part is two minutes long and is set in King's Landing. The transition is by image, from the window in the prison to Littlefinger peering through a hole in the wall.

The eleventh part is five minutes long and is set in Meereen. The transition is by hard cut, from Littlefinger to a man putting on armor.

The twelfth is eight minutes long and is set in King's Landing. The transition is by family, from Tyrion to Cersei. The final image is of the door to Cersei's cell.


Review

Well I suppose we should start with Winterfell, which, to say the least, did not go satisfyingly. Although perhaps it is most sensible to talk about that in relation to Meereen, where far more interesting things are afoot, as the show makes the glorious decision to have Tyrion and Daenerys meet, in marked contrast to the books where the meeting is still being delayed as of the end of A Dance With Dragons. It's a fantastic move full of possibility. Meanwhile, it's torture porn for Sansa, with an episode whose entire plot can be summarized, in terms of her, as "Brienne does not get involved."

Obviously, in a story with lots of moving parts, a major part of writing is figuring out how to not have things happen. Large swaths of Game of Thrones have necessarily been spent furiously not having characters do things - consider Tyrion in Season Three, for instance. It's often frustrating, but understandable.

All the same, when one plot is being brilliantly accelerated it makes the fact that we're stuck in a banal plot in which nothing happens save for a desperately unpleasant character ruling with cruel impunity over more interesting characters all the more frustrating. And I want to be clear, that's my objection. My objection is that Ramsey raping Sansa every night while she's powerless to do anything is fucking boring and banal. It's all stuff Game of Thrones has done before and done better. Ramsey isn't as good a sadist as Joffrey. The supporting cast around him and Sansa isn't as interesting as Tyrion, Shae, and Cersei. And on year five the show's attempt at one-upping its previous shocks are just feeling desperate and strained. Especially when it's done through pathetically contrived means like "Ramsey Bolton is eating dinner in a ruined tower for no apparent reason."

Because to be clear, I'm not opposed to using rape as a plot point. I accept that for a text that's invested in providing a commentary on the brutal material reality of politics and history to ignore the use of rape as a means of enforcing power would be dishonest.

I'm just opposed to being boring. And right now the Winterfell plot of "awful things happen to the only interesting character while the plot resolutely fails to advance" is the single dullest thing Game of Thrones has done since the Theon scenes in Season Three. Which, notably, included many of the same barely watchable characters.

And, of course, none of this is helped by the fact that Winterfell alternates with a not entirely satisfying Wall plot over the course of the episode's first twenty-three minutes. It's not that the Wall scenes are bad. But they're dealing with firmly secondary characters, which means they're not exactly long on momentum. And the attempted rape of Gilly was not a satisfying element to have sliced in with Winterfell's plot, given the issues that plot is having, and I have to admit, "have you considered murdering your daughter" isn't really a compelling Stannis plot either, at least at this point, whcih is a problem, especially as Stannis's plot is what Sansa's plot is waiting to catch up with. (Indeed, in some ways the biggest question here is "why are there seven minutes of nothing happening in Winterfell and only four of the plot Winterfell is on hold for?")

Thankfully after the first third of the episode things pick up, although it has to be said, the Dorne sequences are both messes, with Bronn's scene being particularly gratuitous both in terms of pointless nudity and in terms of a superfluous plot. The big revelation scene can't come soon enough for this plot.

King's Landing is delightful, on the other hand, with Olenna finally finding herself on the back foot and proving to be just as interesting when she can't make any progress as when she's slapping every other character around. Similarly, Cersei's comeuppance is delightful, and the slow inevitability of the trap closing around her is very well done.

And, of course, there's Meereen, which had what is probably the single most satisfying moment of the season so far as Tyrion and Daenerys actually, properly meet. Although one kind of wonders why nobody thinks telling Daenerys that the fighters are all slaves might be an interesting thing to do right now.

But with the first third of the episode spent wheel-spinning in the north and a turkey of a Dorne section breaking up the latter portion this is not an especially satisfying episode, which is particularly disappointing after last week's massive bomb.

Ranking

1. High Sparrow
2. The Wars to Come
3. Kill the Boy
4. Sons of the Harpy
5. The House of Black and White
6. The Gift
7. Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken

Predictions

(As always, book spoilers abound)

Looks like Braavos, Winterfell, King's Landing, Meereen, and the Wall, with no Dorne. From what I'm most confident in to what I found trickiest.

King's Landing: Looks mainly focused on Cersei raging futilely in the dungeon. I don't expect this to be a huge part of the episode, and it would not surprise me if Cersei is the only major King's Landing character to appear.

Braavos: Not in the trailer, but mentioned in the episode description with the very vague "Arya makes progress in her training." This will presumably be the Cat of the Canals material in which she's bringing three facts back to the House of Black and White daily. Eventually she's going to whack Meryn Trant, and I kind of expect him to show up this episode. [Addendum: The description for Episode 9 makes it clear that Trant will be showing up there.]

The Wall: From the title and trailer this looks like it will be the biggest part of the episode. They've made a lot of changes to what Jon is doing with the Wildlings, but I expect the broad strokes to remain in place, with him successfully negotiating a settlement with them.

Meereen: Looks like Daenerys is going to be spectacularly unmoved by Jorah's gift of Tyrion. Based on photos of what's probably the big scene of Drogon's return, I would guess she sends Jorah back to the pits, but keeps Tyrion around.

Winterfell: No evidence of Stannis, or really of anything besides Sansa and Tyrion, so I expect this will be a whole lot of nothing happening, although maybe there will be some meaningful progress in Theon's character arc.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Saturday Waffling (May 23rd, 2015)

Let's see. Got the edits back on the first two seasons of Eruditorum 6. About 3-4000 words from the end of Book One of Last War in Albion. Logopolis books will finally go out Wednesday.

Several unrelated things kicking around that I'd love to find time for, but I'm not quite sure where that time would go right now.

"Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken" is still very much on my mind right now, and rather making moving on to A Brief Treatise on the Rules of Thrones 2.x a bit of a sour experience. I'd been going to roll out a new feature on the GoT reviews for the back half of the season in which I made next episode predictions, and was left in far too foul a mood after that episode to do it. But anyway, here's predictions for "The Gift," based on officially released HBO material and the books.

It looks like we have the Wall, Winterfell, Dorne, King's Landing, and Meereen up this episode, but no Braavos.

The Wall: Probably where the episode's title comes from. Jon Snow will commence the rescue mission of the Wildlings at Hardhome. Dissent in the ranks will continue. This looks straightforward.

King's Landing: The arc here is clearly that Oleanna is going to throw Cersei in the path of the High Sparrow as well, with Lancel providing evidence of her crimes. Whether Oleanna will enact that plan this episode, or merely fail at talking Margery out out of jail is unclear. I'll bet on her enacting it, though.

Winterfell The presence of snow and the repeated talk of "the snows starting" suggest we are going to do a variation of the plot in which Stannis gets bogged down in a snowstorm. But I think we'll be in the early stages of that here. As for Sansa, my guess is that she's going to be a functional prisoner, but that she's going to get Theon to signal for Brienne. I hope this plot advances pretty far, obviously. It's perfectly plausible that Ramsey is going to die this episode.

Dorne: Tricky, as Jaime's presence now prevents most of the obvious plot arcs. I've seen speculation of Bronn being poisoned. Could happen. All we know for certain is that Jaime and Myrcella are going to have a chat. It's entirely possible that's all there will be; they've hardly been putting Dorne at the forefront of the plot, and there's not necessarily a lot more to do with it either. Really all that's guaranteed is a big Doran scene in the next four episodes.

Meereen: By far the hardest to predict. It wasn't clear Daenerys was in it until some publicity photos emerged. All we have to go on is that Daenerys is in it, and a trailer shot of Tyrion (looks like indoors, but in theory could be on a ship). This could be a straight plate-spin. Obviously we're building to a Tyrion/Jorah/Daenerys/Drogo collision, but as with Winterfell and Dorne, it's very hard to tell how far we'll go in this episode.

Past that... I found myself wondering the other day about my non-male readership. My comments section is very good for an Internet comment section, but it's still male-dominated. So let's do a non-male only comment section, and just ask for thoughts on topics of social justice, and particularly feminism that this blog has covered lately. Whether Vox Day and the Hugos, Moffat, Game of Thrones, ethics in video game criticism, or anything else. If your Internet presence does not identify as male, please fire away.

Back tomorrow night with "The Gift." Hopefully Marcelo Camargo and The Ark in Space both next week.

Friday, May 22, 2015

It's All True (The Last War in Albion Part 97: Nightjar, Sinister Ducks)

This is the ninth of eleven parts of The Last War in Albion Chapter Ten, focusing on Alan Moore's Bojeffries Saga. An omnibus of all eleven parts is available on Smashwords. If you are a Kickstarter backer or a Patreon backer at $2 or higher per week, instructions on how to get your complimentary copy have been sent to you.

The Bojeffries Saga is available in a collected edition that can be purchased in the US or in the UK.

Previously in The Last War in Albion: Alan Moore was particularly passionate about his handful of collaborations with Bryan Talbot. But his major effort at collaborating with Talbot, a strip to be called Nightjar and be published in Warrior, was never completed.

"The world must be warned about those ducks. It's all true." -Translucia Baboon, quoted by Neil Gaiman

Figure 776: The opening to Nightjar, unpublished for
twenty years. (Written by Alan Moore, art by Bryan
Talbot c. 1983, published in Yuggoth Cultures #1, 2003)
Nightjar ultimately became a casualty of Moore’s falling out with Dez Skinn, who, for his part, insists that he “was never very keen on Nightjar (hated the name) and Bryan was another slow - or busy - artist, so it would never have happened in Warrior.” Talbot ultimately only completed two and a half pages of the strip, with another page partially completed, but roughly twenty years after Talbot had started the page,  William Christensen at Avatar got in touch and asked if he still had the unfinished pages. Talbot did, and Christensen proceeded to commission Talbot to finish the strip, reprinting it along with the script and Moore’s letter to Talbot about the development of it in the first issue of the anthology Yuggoth Cultures, collecting various Moore obscurities with newly commissioned adaptations of some of his poems and song lyrics.

Figure 777: The seven villainous sorcerers
who killed Mirrigan's father. (Written by
Alan Moore c. 1983, art by Bryan Talbot,
from "Nightjar" in Yuggoth Cultures #1, 2003)
The resulting strip is a straightforward thing - mainly a slab of exposition that starts with ten-year-old girl watching her father die, a death that Moore, in typically florid captions, describes as “a dirty death, stumbling and falling amidst the yellow grass and rusted pram wheels, eyes rolling, white foam flecked on blackening lips” as a man the audience is told is the Emperor of all the Birds is “murdered by sorcerers.” The strip then cuts eighteen years later as the girl, Mirrigan Demdyke, receives a lecture from her dying grandmother (memorably depicted by Talbot as an old woman with her eyes sewn shut), who explains that her father was not killed fairly under the rules of magic, as he was not killed by a single opponent, but by a cabal of seven sorcerers conspiring against him. Outraged by this travesty, Mirrigan swears that she will kill the seven, who are introduced at patient length by her grandfather, starting with “Hart Wentworth, whose soul is like a monstrous slug, crusted with sapphires, thrashing contentedly in the tarpit of his own vileness” and ending with Sir Eric Blason, the new Emperor of all the Birds, who Moore leaves relatively undescribed in the comic, but notes in the script is “a member of parliament” with “power on a level that drug-addled ninnies like you and I can scarcely conceive.” 

It is not a setup long on subtlety, and the unreconstructed revenge narrative does seem to support Moore’s response to Talbot’s suggestion a few years later that they revive the strip, namely, as Talbot puts it, that Moore had “moved on and was capable of better work,” although to be fair, V for Vendetta ultimately evolved from straightforward revenge narrative to something more interesting, and the possibility certainly exists that Moore would have similarly enlivened Nightjar. Certainly much of the conceptual territory was subsequently revisited, most obviously with, as Talbot points out, with “his concept of an urban sorcerer eventually manifesting itself in the form of John Constantine.” But to both men’s regret, this was as close to a major project together as they ever came.

The underground scene through which Moore and Talbot came up provided another major component of Moore’s shadow career - that work which can be described as stemming out of the Arts Lab scene he participated in between his expulsion from school and the commencement of Roscoe Moscow, a scene that, while it formally wound down in the mid-70s, introduced Moore to a number of creative partners with whom he produced work alongside his early comics career, mostly in the form of a series of bands with varying degrees of extremely minor success. The first and least successful of these was his 1978 effort The Emperors of Ice Cream, with saxophonist Alex Green and, in a near-miss, David J, who answered Moore and Green’s ad in the Northampton Chronicle and Echo, only to ultimately decline due to being invited to join Bauhaus. The Emperors, at least in their first iteration, fizzled, with Green describing them as a “dream band that never got beyond rehearsals,” although Moore would revive the name nearly fifteen years later for a second try.

Figure 778: The Mystery Guests playing live in 1979.
(Photo from Bauhaus Gig Guide.)
More successful were the Mystery Guests, a band which Moore was not actually a member of, but which consisted of several familiar figures from Moore’s orbit, most notably Green and Pickle/Mr. Licquorice, and which Moore wrote some lyrics for. Moore’s description of the band in a 1981 Sounds article is vivid, to say the least, describing the reaction to their music as “violent and schismatic, divided mainly between those who merely loathed them and those who wished them actual physical harm. A few, it must be said, had the wit to appreciate that the abrasive and cruel music, coupled with the sniggering delerium of the lyrics displayed the early thrashings of a monstrous and disturbed genius.” A fanzine review of a concert where they shared a bill with Bauhaus gives a similar sense - the reviewer remarks that “someone told me that they’re excellent musicians in their own right while another source revealed that they’d got a bet on to try and clear the floor (which they almost succeeded in doing).” 

Figure 779: The sleeve of the 1980 "Wurlitzer Junction"
single, which featured a credit to Curt Vile on the back.
Moore penned lyrics to one and a half songs for the Mystery Guests. His full song, “Wurlitzer Junction,” which resurfaced from essentially complete obscurity on the Nation of Saints: 50 Years of Northampton Music CD included with the first issue of Dodgem Logic, is an ostentatiously disjointed number that pairs a straightforward punk guitar line with a consciously dissonant keyboard line in the style of a Wurlitzer organ. Moore’s lyrics are oblique, mixing slices of working class life (“I keep the wallets and I stack the tacks behind the factory / I do not do it for remuneration / In fact the lack of tax is actively unsatisfactory”) with moments of slight foreboding (“Why don’t you take me to the imaginary zoo? / You’ll be on the News at Ten / Where ambulance men give empty views”), mixed into an almost but not completely meterless verse. (Moore notes that he’s particularly proud of rhyming “bachelor” and “manufacturer.”) The other, “The Merry Shark You Are,” consists of a first verse written by Moore (“You never hear the bomb that hits you; anesthetic. / Here’s a steady man with thoughts like shrapnel. / You piss in the dark just like / the Merry Shark you are.”) and a second by Mr. Licquorice (“And if she’s dead she died in flames / In cheap hotel rooms where the petrol scent remains / What becomes of slim young women / Born at best on best-forgotten days?”). The two songs were independently released in 1980 where, in Moore’s words, they “immediately soared to the furthermost pinnacles of obscurity.”

A third band, the Sinister Ducks, first formed when Moore, Alex Green, David J, and a fourth member, Glyn Bush (“who happened to be passing through town that particular lunch hour,” as Moore explains) stepped in to fill an afternoon slot for Mr. Liquorice and Moore’s Deadly Fun Hippodrome in the summer of 1979. As Moore describes the experience, “Mr. Liquorice asked me if I could possibly form a super-group and be on stage in ten minutes time. Being pretty drunk, this seemed to me a viable proposition.” A second performance took place two years later at another Mr. Licquorice event, this time actually going as far as preparing material the day before the performance instead of in a ten minute rush. The show was most memorable for a song called “Plastic Man Goes Nuts,” which featured, for a vocal line, the severed head of a talking doll toy that was held up to a microphone rigged to provide post-processing effects while, as David J puts it, “Alan would stare at it with malicious intent. Experimental!” 

Figure 780: Kevin O'Neill's cover to "March of the Sinister
Ducks."
After another two years, the band released a single consisting of two tracks, an a-side entitled “March of the Sinister Ducks,” and a b-side consisting of a recording of “Old Gangsters Never Die,” by this point a decade old piece that had already been repurposed once when it was incorporated into the aborted Another Suburban Romance. This is one of two recordings of Moore performing the piece that exists, the other dating from when Moore was a guest on spoken word artist Scroobius Pip’s Distraction Pieces podcast in 2015 and performed it on Pip’s request. Unlike the Sinister Ducks recording, which featured a musical backbeat and saxophone line, and Moore affecting an ostentatious American accent, the Distraction Pieces version is performed without accompaniment, with Moore opting for his natural accent, reworking the narrator from the force of sinister arrogance of the 1983 recording into a quieter figure who seems to almost yearn for the deaths he describes. This change reflects not only the passage of more than forty years since Moore first wrote the piece, but also Moore’s evolving opinion of it, with Moore reflecting that it is “a series of beautiful images relating to old gangster films, old gangster mythology” but that “they don’t actually say very much,” and that “the words exist as a carrier of a kind of mood.” Accordingly, his performance abandons the attempt to define a character, with Moore instead giving individual images room to breathe and stand on their own; indeed, following Moore’s impromptu performance, Pip singles out Moore’s use of pauses and gaps for praise.

Figure 781: A duck.
“March of the Sinister Ducks,” meanwhile, is an original piece for the single, and is simply one of the most delightfully bizarre things ever produced by the War. It consists of just under three minutes of urgent warnings about the evils of ducks sung over a guitar and piano backing, with Alan Moore contributing both the gregariously baritone vocal line and most of the quacking noises that litter the track. The song steadily develops from its initial ridiculousness, noting that “everyone thinks they’re such sweet little things (ducks, ducks, quack quack, quack quack)” and that “you think they’re cuddly but I think they’re sinister (ducks, ducks, quack quack, quack quack)” before eventually warning about how the ducks are “sneering and whispering and stealing your cars, reading pornography, smoking cigars (ducks, ducks, quack quack, quack quack)” and that “they smirk at your hairstyle and sleep with your wives (ducks, ducks, quack quack, quack quack) dressed in plaid jackets and horrible shoes, getting divorces and turning to booze” before finally proclaiming them “web-footed fascists with mad little eyes (ducks, ducks, quack quack, quack quack).” 

But for all that it emerged out of Moore’s art lab connections, the eventual Sinister Ducks single owed no small debt to the comics world as well. The front cover was an inventively bizarre piece by Kevin O’Neill, while the back cover featured the work of Savage Pencil, who shared the comics page of Sounds with Moore. Beyond this, the single also contained an eight page comic adaptation of Old Gangsters Never Die, with art by Lloyd Davis. It’s a bizarre set of collaborators and, for that matter, a bizarre single, utterly unconcerned with any sort of commercial success. Instead, it exists fairly obviously for no reason other than to entertain the people creating it, a monument to nothing save for Alan Moore’s sense of what might be fun. 

Figure 782: One of Eddie Campbell's cartoons for
"Globetrotting for Agoraphobics." (From Honk #4, 1987)
This also goes a long way towards describing Moore’s contributions to magazines like Honk, an American anthology published by Fantagraphics. Moore’s contributions include his first work with Eddie Campbell, a three page text piece entitled “Globetrotting for Agoraphobics” for which Campbell provides half a dozen single-panel cartoons as illustration. The piece is a humorous attempt to address “what we can do for agoraphobiacs I our midst. How can we ease their suffering? How can we help them see themselves as useful members of society, rather than as nuisances who get in the way when the Gas-man wants to read the meter in the cupboard under the stairs?” He goes on to suggest that what agoraphobics really need is a trip around the world, which, given the obvious difficulties involved, is, in his account, probably best accomplished by sticking a paper bag over their head and trying to persuade them that they’re on a globetrotting trip without actually taking them outside of their apartment by employing tricks like, in order to get them to think they’re on a plane, sitting “them in an armchair that is situated so as to be facing the wall from less than a foot away, requiring that the knees be tucked up under the chin in an uncomfortable position, where they will remain for the next eight hours.” From there it’s just a small matter of following Moore’s suggestions for specific countries, such as his account of how to recreate Sweden in your kitchen. (“Seating your by-now-world-weary explorer in the chest freezer, fill the sink with blancmange and then try vigorously to unblock it using a conventional plumber’s suction cup while asking them what they think of the live sex show.”) 

Moore’s other contribution to Honk is a reprint of a piece earlier published by Knockabout Comics, originally with illustrations by Savage Pencil, although the Honk version was illustrated by Peter Bagge. Entitled “Brasso with Rosie,” the piece is one of the few, and by some margin the earliest openly autobiographical piece that Moore has written. It is, to be sure, an exaggerated and at least partially fictionalized piece - Moore’s claim that an elderly relative of his was once “totally immobilized when a thoughtless spouse decided to hang mirrors upon either side of the tiny, damp-scented room in which he customarily sat, presenting the luckless dotard with an infinite succession of doppelgangers arrayed to either side of him,” leading him to believe that he had “been granted some form of X-ray vision, enabling him to see through the peeling walls and into the identical living rooms of his neighbors,” and that “he remained like this for twenty years” is, for example, surely overstating the case by at least half a decade. [continued]

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Comics Reviews (May 20, 2015)

Guardians of the Galaxy #27

I take it that this is the last issue before it goes on vacation for Secret Wars. In which case it's a rushed, sloppy, and pointless issue that provides nothing like a satisfying stopping point and demonstrates the abject stupidity of wasting this book in a bad crossover during the lead-in.

Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor #12

Love the opening section, which is another fantastic set of Bowie riffs. The subsequent sections kind of stall for time before eventually resolving into a neat cliffhanger. But very much a filler issue, I fear.

Loki: Agent of Asgard #14

I find that Ewing's Loki stories tend to start slow for me and then work themselves out later in the plot, so I'm sure this will pick up for me, but I found almost every section dealing with Odin a bit of a drag. Part of this is just that I don't much like Marvel's Odin, but it's also a place where the Secret Warsness of it doesn't really hold together, as this book seems to be pursuing a different apocalypse than the rest of the Marvel Universe. Loki and Verity are always great though.

Daredevil #15.1

Not sure why an ending book needs a .1 issue, but as filler fluff goes, not bad. Unconvinced of the merit or necessity of the second story, but the first one is a solid Daredevil story. Oh, wait. We just had the TV series. That's why there's a .1 issue. In any case, fun.

Ultimate End #1

Interesting. This serves as the first bit of Secret Wars to show us Manhattan, and turns out to be a fairly integral chunk of the plot, at least on first inspection. Certainly there's more 616 than I expected. And really, it's nice to have a tie-in mini that would have been perfectly justifiable as an event in its own right.

Uncanny X-Men #34

Oh boy. I can't wait for the next issue. When's it coming out? Oh. October.

More seriously, good issue. Basically a Dazzler one-shot. There are not enough comics featuring Dazzler. Really impressed with Anka's art too. Nice, clean storytelling. The denouement of Bendis's X-Men run has been completely fucked by the release schedule, but it's also been good stuff.

Trees #9

No concessions to accessibility. None. But it's hard not to love its sheer lack of compromise. I'm not even sure I have a detailed opinion; lord knows I neither followed nor remember the first arc of Trees well enough to even quite pin down who the characters here are. And yet I enjoyed it, simply because looking at something this smart and well-done is pleasurable. Just as sitting down with it all when it's done will be.

A-Force #1

Smart, accessible, and it has Miss America Chavez to boot. This is apparently not just a Secret Wars book, although its initial premise is very much grounded in that, and I have to admit, I'm excited for it. Excellent jumping on point, even if you're not following the crossover. Very much recommend checking this out.